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25 Smartest Moves of the Past 25 Years: Yankees sign DJ LeMahieu

Very few people were happy when the Yankees signed DJ LeMahieu in January 2019. Fortunately, we were all wrong.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Heading into the 2018-2019 offseason, the Yankees were in an unusual predicament. Despite a 100-62 record, the team finished second in the AL East to the 108-win Boston Red Sox, who defeated them in four games in the ALDS en route to their second World Series title of the decade. It was the second straight year that the Yankees would be eliminated by the eventual champions.

The Yankees needed an upgrade of some capacity, but outside the rotation (the team addressed that by adding James Paxton in a November trade). There was no obvious place that needed an upgrade: the diamond-in-the-rough acquisition of Luke Voit solidified a first base position that had been in disarray for years, Miguel Andújar and Gleyber Torres had finished as the two runners-up for AL Rookie of the Year, Gary Sánchez was just one year removed from an All-Star season, and Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, and Brett Gardner locked down an outfield that had a top prospect in Clint Frazier waiting in the wings.

However, the opportunity to strike might well be when there’s a lack of an obvious hole; a team that is already good gains more in the short-term by adding an elite player than one that finished fifth in their division. And it just so happened that a pair of elite players hit the market that winter in Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, and both were heavily tied to the Yankees. So imagine everyone’s disappointment when the team followed up its Troy Tulowitzki signing by adding an infielder by the name of... DJ LeMahieu.

Signing Details: Signed to 2-year, $24 million contract

Transaction Date: January 14, 2019

Stats from initial contract (2019-20): 195 G, 871 PA, .336/.386/.536, 36 HR, 129 RBI, 43 2B, 146 OPS+, 8.7 bWAR, 7.9 fWAR, 2019 All-Star, 2020 batting title, 2 All-MLB first team selections, 2 Silver Sluggers

From the get-go, LeMahieu seemed an odd fit for the Yankees. After all, he had posted a career 92 OPS+ to date, was two years removed from the only season in which he posted an OPS+ over 100 (128 in 2016, when he won the NL batting title), and had played almost the entirety of his career in the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field. Furthermore, despite the three-time Gold Glover’s defensive prowess at second base, the Yankees planned to use him as a superutility infielder, playing as an everyday starter by bouncing between first, second, and third base. Although technically he had played both positions before, it had been four years since he last made an appearance outside of second base.

Needless to say, the fans weren’t happy — and neither were the writers here at Pinstripe Alley, either.

Needless to say, we were all horribly, horribly wrong — much to our collective delight.

LeMahieu did not play on Opening Day (March 28th) against the Orioles, making his Yankees debut during the second game of the season. Batting ninth and manning the hot corner, he went 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI. By April 5th, he had established himself as the team’s leadoff hitter when Gardner — the team’s primary leadoff hitter since the Jurassic Period (also known as 2013) had the day off. By April 14th, he had begun to split the role with Gardner. On April 20th, he seized the spot for good.

Over the first two months of the season, LeMahieu proved himself invaluable to the “Next Man Up” Yankees, as his defensive flexibility allowed him the team to weather injuries to literally an entire infield’s worth of players (Greg Bird, Didi Gregorius, Andújar, and Tulowitzki). Moreover, he was hitting .317/.368/.462 with a 121 wRC+ and 1.4 fWAR.

Then June came around, and LeMachine turned up the heat. Slashing an otherworldly .395/.434/.658 and accruing 1.8 fWAR, he reached base safely in every game except for June 7th’s loss to Cleveland; over that time, his batting average and on-base percentage jumped 30 points to .345 and .392, while his slugging percentage increased by almost 80 points to .534 (this combined for a rise in OPS from .820 to .925).

“LeMachine” capped off the electric month with an incredible performance during the London Series, with 7 hits (3 doubles) and 7 RBIs in 12 plate appearances. Leading off the Yankees’ thrilling 17-13 win on June 29th with a line drive single to right field, he became the first Major League player with a hit in England, and he would become the first batter to score there as well thanks to a Luke Voit double.

Thanks in part to his performance in those two games, LeMahieu earned Player of the Week honors that week, as well as Player of the Month for June.

LeMahieu would cap off that electric first half with his third All-Star selection and first start, edging out José Altuve and Tommy La Stella in the final round of voting. Batting second and playing second, LeMahieu was hitless in his two plate appearances, just the fourth time since May 25th he had been held without a hit.

LeMahieu continued his hot performance down the stretch, finishing the season with a .327/.375/.518 slash line and career-highs in home runs (26), runs batted in (102), OPS+ (136), hits (197), doubles (33), and runs scored (109). On top of that, he did this by moving around more than just about anybody in baseball, starting 28 games at first, 66 at second, and 47 at third. His elite performance earned him a Silver Slugger and a top-four finish in the AL MVP vote.

Come playoff time, with Voit ailing and struggling, the Yankees opted to play LeMahieu exclusively at first base, with Torres, Gregorius, and Gio Urshela rounding out the infield while trade acquisition Edwin Encarnación took the DH spot. In their nine games, LeMahieu hit like a stereotypical first baseman, posting a .325/.386/.625 slash with three home runs, including a critical game-tying home run in the top of the ninth of Game 6 of the ALCS.

Unfortunately, rather than becoming his Yankees signature moment, LeMahieu joins the ranks of Marcus Paige and Josh Allen, with big plays in clutch moments that nobody really cares about. Probably the most historic thing about it was Evan Ernst’s poem, which drew the attention of the second baseman’s family.

If LeMahieu’s 2019 was good, then his 2020 was from another planet. Despite getting a late start to Summer Camp due to a bout with COVID-19, the second baseman was ready for the season by its second game, and he essentially hit like it was June 2019 for the entire year. His .364 batting average led all of baseball, making him just the second person to win a batting title in both the American and National Leagues; his 178 OPS+ and .427 on-base percentage also led the league, while his 2.5 fWAR was fourth in the AL. Along the way, he received another Silver Slugger Award and finished third in the MVP vote.

When LeMahieu hit free agency that winter after the Yankees’ ALDS loss, he was the top infielder, and arguably the top position player, on the market. He had become such an integral part of the team that it was inconceivable the Yankees would let him walk, and they eventually signed him to a six year, $90 million contract.

While time will tell whether that second contract will be worth its weight, there is no argument that LeMahieu’s first deal with the Yankees was just as successful — if not more so — than the rage that its announcement originally fueled.